Photos via Craig Stone
Envision riding peacefully through nature in a canoe made of redwood planks with a sharp bow to cut waves, while learning about the world of Long Beach’s indigenous culture. That’s what a group of students and teachers from California State University Long Beach (CSULB) did recently.
CSULB worked with the American Indian Science and Engineering Society and the Ti’at Society to restore a 27-foot long, 750-pound canoe, or ti’at, which had been lying in disrepair for years.
“It’s important to value all of the stories and histories of the people that make up Long Beach, especially the indigenous people of this land,” said Craig Stone, an interdisciplinary professor in the American Indian Studies Program and Department of Art at CSULB.
Stone was among the group that worked on the ti’at restoration.
The ti’at is a traditional canoe of the Tongva tribe. Southern California is the ancestral home of the Tongva, which currently has around 1,700 members. The last fluent speakers of the Tongva language likely passed away in the early 20th century, according to the World Heritage Encyclopedia.
“Part of living in any one place is knowing where you live and knowing the history of the place. Having some type of connection to where we are rather than replacing the story, replacing the plants and replacing everything,” said Stone.
He added the sight of modern day Native Americans paddling a canoe is a reminder of those who were here before but who remain largely invisible.
The ti’at project combined modern science with ancient techniques that go back thousands of years. The planks for the canoe are sewn together by dogbane plants that are native to Long Beach. The group produced nearly three miles of rope, grinding the plants with their feet into a twine that was woven together to form the cordage.
Participants in the project said it gave them a chance to form a community, learn about the history of the area and preserve traditions that might otherwise be lost.
“It brought us together,” said Miztlayolxochitl Aguilera, Vice President of the American Indian Student Council and a paddler for the Ti’at Society. She said the project helps ensure that “indigenous maritime traditions remain a part of our life and that they keep on being an important part of our society and the way we live.”
For many non-indigenous people, joining in on the project was their first interaction with indigenous locals, Aguilera said.
The ti’at was a mainstay of local Native American culture in Southern California. Tribes used the canoes to travel along the coast and out to the nearby Channel Islands. The tradition disappeared with the arrival of Europeans and the ensuing oppression of indigenous peoples.
But Vince Holguin, a former president of the American Indian Science and Engineering Society, said he and others still retain memories passed down from previous generations.
“We still have that knowledge within our elders and they continue to pass it down to us,” said Holguin. “It’s important for local native people to embrace our own culture… which can be lost at any time if we don’t share the importance of it.”
Stone agrees. “When [the canoe is] out in waters, it reminds us of historical tradition. It reminds us that some folks have survived. It wasn’t complete destruction,” he said.
The restored ti’at has been a source of pride and recognition for the Tongva and others since it was first built in the 1990s. The canoe has been a part of the Ti’at Festivals in the island of Pimu, or Catalina Island, and the International Music Festival.
It was also featured at the annual Moompetam, or Gathering of the Salt Water People, festival in September at the Aquarium of the Pacific.
“The festival is important to Long Beach because Long Beach is the traditional homeland of Tongva people, and you can meet and learn all about them and the neighboring coastal tribes at Moomptam,” said Peter Martineau, Marketing Events Manager at Aquarium of the Pacific. “These people are still practicing their traditional ways, which are closely tied to the ocean.”
For Holguin, the experience of paddling the ti’at is both physically and spiritually nourishing.
“Going out there and paddling gives appreciation for water and nature,” he said, “it’s a really therapeutic and humbling experience.”
Want to speak Tongva? Look here.